Last week, the Labour Party called an Opposition Day debate calling on the Government to continue to fund Free School Meals during the school holidays until Easter 2021. I voted to extend Free School Meals over the holidays. Unfortunately, the Conservative Party used their eighty seat majority to vote against the extension of Free School Meals to children from low-income households over the holidays.
This was a very disappointing result on an issue which should be gaining cross-party support and as someone who was in receipt of Free School Meals I know the difference that it makes to children and the stress it relieves from their parents. The Prime Minister spoke of ‘levelling up’ across the UK and I believe that includes ensuring that some of our most disadvantaged children have access to food. Approximately 1.4 million children are eligible for Free School Meals and that number is suspected to have risen due to the effects of the pandemic so it may now be closer to 2 million. The pandemic has exacerbated child poverty, but it did not cause it, and it is unacceptable that in the sixth largest economy in the world child poverty and widespread use of food banks has become so normalised. The Government urgently needs to take action on the causes of child poverty such as low pay, the two child cap and the roll out of Universal Credit – according to The Trussell Trust areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out for at least two years have seen food bank use increase by 48%.
In Lewisham 12479 children rely on Free School Meals and since the start of the outbreak there has been a 13% rise in families receiving Free School Meals. I am proud to report that Lewisham Council will be ensuring that our children will receive Free School meals over the holidays and parents should contact the school to ensure this. The Mayoresses of Lewisham and the volunteers at Evelyn Community Store have been campaigning to ensure that no Lewisham child goes hungry over the October half term and it has been heartening to see the support for their fundraiser in the wake of the Government’s decision. It is clear that the Lewisham residents care deeply about our children but the community should not be having to organise in this way.
This should not be an issue that is up for debate and the language used by some has shown disregard for the welfare of the children who do receive Free School Meals. We should be proud to ensure that none of our children are not going to bed hungry. Marcus Rashford’s campaign has highlighted the depths of the issue in the UK and also how many people up and down the country want to see this resolved. The Last Labour Government saw 900,000 children lifted out of poverty and the Child Poverty Act 2010, which had cross-party support, resolved to end child poverty by 2020. We are now in 2020 and the scourge of child poverty persists hindering the opportunities of our children.
I sincerely hope that the Government makes a U-turn and matches the commitments of the Welsh and Scottish governments and the Northern Irish executive and to make the wellbeing of children from low-income backgrounds a priority. However, if the Government declines then the Labour Party will force a Commons vote before the Christmas holidays.